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Near the end of my meal at MachneYuda, where I was seated at the counter, every cook in the kitchen suddenly rushed past me, engineering what looked like a prison break. The crew poured into the dining area and raced from table to table, laying down strips of aluminum foil and decorating them, graffiti-style, with fruits, ice creams, cakes, candies, syrups and sauces. You've heard of free-range chicken? This was free-range pastry. Or maybe the kids' game Candy Land, come to life.

MachneYuda is next to and named for the famous Jerusalem market Machne Yehuda. More precisely, it's named for the way Israelis pronounce the name when they're in a hurry, which Israelis always are. My meal began with housemade beer, IPA-style, the label a depiction of a mortar, circa 1948, the year of the first Arab–Israeli War. (It's known in Arabic as al-Nakba, "the Catastrophe.") No statement of Israeli hegemony was intended – the restaurant playlist would have been suitable for an Arab wedding.

I ate pan-fried calamari heads, red-tuna carpaccio, a lettuce wrap with endive and crisp beef, black-rice risotto. The plates, when there were any, were ornamented with splashes of eggplant cream, labneh, tahini or mango. Yet it's the rambunctious and showy kitchen staff as much as the exuberant food that's the star here.

IsraelRed-tuna carpaccio and a jar of asparagus, mushroom and parmesan-topped polenta at MachneYuda in Jerusalem

Unfettered dining is thriving worldwide, but not like this. Leave it to Israeli chefs to incorporate, exaggerate and celebrate everything around them – every technique and product and tradition in the culinary arsenal. The country has existed for 66 years, which doesn't seem long, but it's an epoch compared to the timeline of the emerging Israeli table. The cuisine is a product of the 21st century, at least that aspect of it not from the Arab table, which goes back millennia. Israel, one of the smallest sovereign nations on earth, is on its way to producing a cuisine that might soon rank among the best in the world.

Uri Navon, one of three chefs who operate MachneYuda, grew up across the hall from a Moroccan family. On the floor below lived Russians and French-Algerians, and beneath them Persians and Palestinians. "And that was just half the building," he says. Chefs like Navon are insatiably absorbing every ingredient and every dish of any peoples who have ever lived here, come here or simply passed through. Even the old Eastern European food – that which arrived on the boats with the early immigrants, the ponderous but beloved cooking of Jewish legend and Passover tables, anchored by brisket and potato kugel – is making a small but valiant comeback. The expansive new restaurant Claro, in Tel Aviv, which looks like a project by an American celebrity chef, serves cabbage rolls stuffed with lamb. Mizlala in Tel Aviv offers seared chicken livers with mamaliga, a corn pudding beloved by my father, whose father was from Romania.

IsraelJuggling ingredients is a breeze for chef Uri Navon.

The new culinary creativity began when the country's chefs realized what was before them: not the bounty of the fields and streams (Israel barely has any of those), but the know-how of the people and cultures. Moshe Basson, born in Iraq and now chef-owner of the kosher restaurant The Eucalyptus, grew up in the Jerusalem suburbs and was inspired by the fragrance of food he was forbidden to eat, cooking on the non-kosher side of a shared village oven.

Eitan Vanunu, chef-owner of the mostly Italian restaurant Halutzim 3, on the edge of the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, informed me that "pork is the new shrimp." Both are treif, prohibited by kosher law, but pork is the ultimate sin while eating shrimp is comparatively benign. His signature dish is a pork and challah combination, the most forbidden of all foods combined with the most beloved of all breads. As our waitress served it, she said "the one and only," and indeed it was, a dish resembling a pastry-encrusted French pâté stuffed with Italian-style pork and bacon ragu and boasting the crunchy edges of a Detroit pizza.

IsraelIsrael's answer to the Scotch egg: Egg schnitzel with crispy shallots at Tel Aviv's HaShulchan.

Chef Omer Miller of Tel Aviv's HaShulchan, famous for egg schnitzel, a kind of spicy Scotch egg topped with fried shallots and peppered with Thai vinaigrette, said to me, "We are in with the great cuisines of the world." This was my first meal after arriving in Israel, and I was tempted to believe him after trying his sea bream served in the pan with a tomato sauce; it resembled shakshuka, the Arab breakfast dish of eggs poached in tomatoes. In fact, a friend and I decided he was missing a marketing opportunity by not calling it shakshuka-by-the-sea.

IsraelCounter culture at North Abraxas in Tel Aviv

The problem with elevating a brand-new cuisine to world class so quickly is that cuisines tend to evolve slowly. They smooth out, like the stones on the shores of the Mediterranean. But this being an era when the culinary world honours that which is original and new, I wondered if an exception deserved to be made. When I first visited the country in the mid-1970s, I lived on fresh-squeezed orange juice and virtually nothing else; the food was so terrible, I returned home weighing what I had in the ninth grade. When I went back in the mid-'90s, practically every chef had decided he was the second incarnation of Paul Bocuse, and hubris – not haute cuisine – was upon the land.

Five years ago, this Modern Israeli cuisine, as it's sometimes called, was in its formative stages, highlighting Mediterranean ideals – salads, grains, fresh vegetables, local spices and spice blends, grilled fish and meats. But it's gone way past that. Now Israel has the best food in the Middle East, no small accomplishment, and it's challenging Turkey for regional pre-eminence. At HaShulchan, my waitress assembled a towering concoction of fudgy cake, chocolate mousse, hand-piped whipped cream and walnuts that rose higher and higher, leaving me babbling, begging her to stop. She said, "You're an American and this is a brownie. You should be able to handle it."

IsraelThe Eucalyptus' stuffed figs with tamarind sauce.

At North Abraxas, run by chef Eyal Shani, it's not the cooks but the servers who run amok, all the more delightful since they are stunning young women in strappy black dresses and tops. A friend who was with me thought we had unwittingly walked into a California beach party, one where the music included reggae and Little Anthony and the Imperials. Early in our meal, a server strolled out of the kitchen holding aloft a banquet-size tray piled high with salad – greens for the picking – and offered it, complimentary, to guests. (The staff nibbled, too.) Forgive me, but I was struck by a mental image of the Simchat Torah services, when worshippers reach out to kiss the scrolls as they pass by.

The food at North Abraxas is even messier and more delirious than that at MachneYuda. I ate my first three courses without utensils – pizza overloaded with crème fraîche, a pan of crab and calamari in a sauce of butter, stock, tomato, garlic and onion, and whatever I could grab of the salad as it passed by. The kitchen is entirely open, set far behind the counter and in view of the guests. I particularly enjoyed watching the disciplinarian manning the pass, where dishes leave the kitchen; she stood there growling at cooks, a small woman tough enough to drive a tank. Allow me to pile additional praise on the cooking here: The Arab cabbage leaves, cooked seven hours with butter and sage, were softer and sweeter than my mother's cabbage, and I've never said that before.
Like MachneYuda, North Abraxas is an addictive restaurant, so jubilant you're likely to plan your return the moment you depart. Israeli chefs are not just remarkably accomplished at the stove, they've also become the absolute masters of informality. No country does it better. It's the signature here, in the same way that the toque symbolizes France.

IsraelHaShulchan's Cremeschnitte is piled high with pastry, cream and joy

At Savida Sea Food Bar in Acre, I sat in an unspoiled courtyard under a ficus tree and dined in the company of hanging laundry, a woman sweeping the paving stones and small boys kicking around a soccer ball, considerately not launching it into our meze. I had not been to Acre before, thinking it a figment of biblical imagination, but here I found not just Savida but also Uri Buri, the former exhilarating, the latter esteemed. Despite a kitchen measuring three metres by three metres and charcoal as the only fuel, Savida chef Dan Smulovitz has single-handedly reinvigorated Acre's once moribund Turkish Bazaar, which is why the grateful landlords offered use of that adjoining courtyard. The menu is whatever local fishermen catch that day, and if there are storms and no fish, the restaurant does not open. His Arab-style salads are really neo-meze, colourful and complex, the most vivid yellowtail with pineapple and red onions. I had fish two ways, one on and one off the bone, one of them called "stella," which I'm guessing Smulovitz made up.

IsraelAn "acre" of meze at Savida Sea Food Bar, including grilled mullet, baked potatoes, and beetroot, lentil and carrot salads.

I should have known about Uri Buri, visited his place decades ago, and all I can think now is, Why didn't anybody tell me? He is from a different era, when restaurants weren't showy and the men operating them could look and dress however they wished, even if that meant a lot like Ernest Hemingway on a so-so day. Buri – real name Jeremias – learned about fish from fishing and opened a restaurant in a building that was once a shoe shop. It's so old the plaster is crumbling. "Nature's our decorator," he said to me, pointing out sections of wall oozing salt. "We have a joke. We tell customers that if you need salt, wait, it will fall off into your food."

He has been in Acre since the '70s, and prefers to send out dishes for his customers rather than allow them to choose. Fortunately, his palate is perfect. His uncooked dishes – in particular, the salmon sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi sorbet, and his fresh anchovies – linger in my memory as surely as any dishes from Michelin-starred restaurants. His warm cappuccino of crab and cognac is nearly identical to a dish I had in the 1990s at Le Bernardin in New York. He is a cook who can do no wrong, and a meal there comes with a lesson: "There is no bad fish, only bad cooks. If a fish is not tasty, don't blame the fish."

IsraelMullet fish speared with sage at North Abraxas, where forks (and sometimes plates) are optional.

With every visit to Israel, I've found the food to be different from what came earlier, the chefs of every generation quickly bouncing back from whatever wrong-headed moves the chefs before them had made. Israel does not linger over its mistakes. Over the years, the only stable culinary element has been the Arab kitchen, now treasured throughout the land.

Nothing made me happier than finding Margaret Tayar still cooking in Jaffa, a mixed area of Arabs and Jews in a once ignored section of Tel Aviv, now discovered by developers who are transforming it too enthusiastically for my taste. Her North African-influenced food is exquisitely simple and from the same mindset as Uri Buri, although she came to Israel from Tehran. When I went by Tayar's restaurant five years ago, it was shuttered and seemingly abandoned, but she told me she was probably just on vacation. Boy, when Israelis leave home, they don't just stop their mail.

IsraelDining at the eponymous Uri Buri, where menus – and salt shakers – are unnecessary.

Tayar is the sweetest Israeli I know, although she comes from Israel's toughest generation. She cooks like a dream, and anything she does with eggplant cannot be matched. I love eating in her quirky little garden, which used to be ornamented with a rocket from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When I asked what happened to it, she laughed and said, "Somebody came and stole it." She recalled how much I loved her fish kebab, made with grouper, and asked if I cared to try her latest version: hand-chopped tuna with onions in a tomato-cherry sauce. Though wary – cherries? – I said yes, and it was impossibly delicious, the tomatoes uplifted by the sweetness of the fruit.

Israel

Michal Baranes is chef and co-owner of Majda, gorgeously set amid fruit trees and caged birds, some kept for their beauty and some for their eggs, in Ein Rafa, an Arab village in the hills outside Jerusalem. Her partner, Jakob Barhum, is Arab, while she is one of the only Jews in the village. (Someday their children will decide for themselves which religion they choose.) The cuisine is Arabic, Moroccan, emotional and gorgeous, more like inspired home cooking than restaurant fare, and irresistible to everyone except her two children, ages 13 and 15. "They like their grandmother's cooking," Baranes says, praising her husband's mother, "the grape leaves and the rice with chicken and eggplant." I myself particularly loved Baranes' slowly stewed lamb shoulder, dark and brooding, spiced with cinnamon.

IsraelContemporary Tel Aviv spot Claro dishes up new takes on Eastern European favourites any bubbe could love.

Majda is a restaurant without borders or affiliations, a nationwide symbol of harmony, although Baranes says of herself and her husband, "We are a regular couple. We fight." She grew up in a high-rise in Netanya, just north of Tel Aviv, and she credits Arabs for her understanding of the land, farming and sustainability, the values everyone seeks. "Arabs live like that, and I am learning from them."

The Israeli chefs of today are startlingly talented, and skeptics should remember that it's almost impossible to overestimate what an ambitious Israeli can accomplish. Meir Adoni of Mizlala is unrestrained in his belief that Israel is unstoppable and that "in five more years, we will certainly be the next thing." Still, this is a land with a history that goes back almost forever, and others are more conscious of time. "Trying to understand the food in Israel is like trying to understand the politics in Israel," says Smulovitz of Savida. "We are a young country and people have no patience. Maybe in 100 or 200 years we'll know what Israeli food is."


Israel

Travel essentials

The wonderfully excessive Israeli breakfast is a hand-me-down from the kibbutz workers who awoke at dawn and toiled in the fields on empty stomachs before gathering for the first meal of the day. The staggering kosher buffet at Tel Aviv's Herods Hotel offers more than 100 items, so expect a frown from the lady at the omelette station if you ask for ham, as the guest in line ahead of me did. (fattal-hotels.com)

More refined is breakfast at Eden House, a boutique hotel with Russian accents and an à la carte menu that includes French toast brioche with date syrup and fresh orange juice, a rarity in a country that once had a superabundance of it – those Jaffa orange groves now house high-rises. (edenhousetlv.com)

It's a quick walk to the old city from the stylish Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, built by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie – or just head up to the rooftop bar for stellar views. (mamillahotel.com)

The Efendi Hotel in Acre, practically a pasha's palace, offers the elegance of the Ottoman era, including a restored 400-year-old Turkish bath. Uri Buri, not a young man, required eight and a half years to construct it, and afterward his grandson said to him, "Thank you for building this for me." (efendi-hotel.com)

In central Jerusalem, stroll to Ticho House, a small, serene and lovely museum, for coffee in the garden. (972-2-624-5068)

Visit Haj Kahil, a palatial restaurant located under the clock tower in Jaffa, for wonderful Arab dining – in particular halabi kebab, a pot pie of sorts cooked over a charcoal fire. (hajkahil.rest-e.co.il)

Restaurants

Jerusalem
The Eucalyptus
972-2-624-4331, the-eucalyptus.com

MachneYuda
972-2-533-3442, machneyuda.co.il

Majda
972-2-579-7108

Tel Aviv
Claro
972-3-601-7777, clarotlv.com 

Halutzim 3
972-3-523-1016

HaShulchan
972-3-525-7171

Margaret Tayar
972-3-682-4741

Mizlala
972-3-566-5505, mizlala.co.il

North Abraxas
972-3-516-6660

Acre
Savida Sea Food Bar
972-4-901-9062

Uri Buri
972-4-955-2212

Tags

FOOD & DRINK     ISRAEL    

Comments… or add another

Miriam Kuropatwa

Monday, November 3rd 2014 12:00
Thank you for a positive and comprehensive look at Israeli culinary delights. Naming places and chefs and giving credit where credit is due will make is possible for tourists to enjoy each recommendation made. This Israel today may be only 66 years old but the culinary expertise of the Jewish people has been nurtured and transformed and enhanced over many generations beginning with Abraham' and Sara;; finally all that talent can be brought together in this land of Israel!

Inbal

Saturday, November 8th 2014 01:51
Great round-up of the modern food scene! To experience the markets and street foods first-hand check out www.deliciousisrael.com for culinary tours in Israel.

eliane

Saturday, March 21st 2015 18:12
great!

Bob

Monday, May 4th 2015 19:46
If the food in Israel really is as good as this narrative about it, gourmets of the world will leave those of less discriminating tastes standing in line waiting and hoping to get into these restaurants. Thanks for the education!
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